Separating the art from the artist has long been a debate in the world of literature.
And with the advent of the Internet and social media, this issue is becoming more and more pronounced in the book community.
It’s easier than ever for the authors of the books we read to become much more than just names to us– they’re real people who say (or… tweet) real things, often having to do with social issues and politics. Not always the most uniting forces.
Naturally, if you pay attention to an author’s personal life (or their vocal Twitter feed) it’s going to become impossible to remain thinking about them as simply the name on the cover of your favorite book. Suddenly, they’re a real person with flaws, mistakes and all sorts of controversial takes. This can be jarring, especially if you don’t like what that author has said or done.
This unsettling realization has sparked debate amongst bookworms: should we separate the art from the artist? Is it even possible?
Though it’s true that books don’t exist in a vacuum, I believe that, most of the time, we can and should separate the art from the artist.
Let’s talk about the idea of separating the art from the artist when it comes to books and literature.
The inability to separate the art from the artist is a very slippery slope
The main reason why separating the art from the artist is so important is because the inability to do so opens the door to a slippery slope of epic proportions.
If you’re unable to read a book by any author who’s said or done something wrong, you’re throwing out so much of literature. How many of those “classic” authors were racist? Well?
If you can’t read Harry Potter you’d better be staying away from Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. And Shakespeare, and Hemingway, and Dr. Seuss, and… I could go on for a long time. Unless you want to scrub history of any wrongdoing, to refuse to separate great works of literature from the historical lack of progressiveness of their authors, you’re making a huge mistake.
It has become relatively common to come across lists people have curated of problematic authors that they won’t read or that they encourage others not to read/support– and I can’t help but feel sorry for someone so willing to deprive themselves of quality literature because they are unable to accept that endorsement of a book is not endorsement of every action of its author.
If you take a puritan approach to never separating the art from the artist, it can get out of control very quickly.
What counts as problematic? If the author has done something illegal, or violent? If they’ve said something you believe to be offensive, or politically contentious? Will all other readers agree with you on whether any given statement is problematic? How many books will you have to scrub from your life? Is it worth it to scrap most of the classics? Is it better to avoid older books that contain offensive content instead of reading them with a critical eye? Will you consider historical context to explain the behavior of certain authors, or just remove them from your reading entirely? Will you background-check the author of every book you borrow from the library to make sure they pass the test? Will your standards change as society’s opinion of what is problematic changes? How often will you update the list? Should other people read these books? Should these books be taught in school? Is it okay to read these books and not post about them, or to read them but not buy them, or to post them but emphasize how problematic they are in your post? Should you preface all mentions of these books with trigger warnings?
The fact is that there are so many brilliant authors who, in their personal lives, were, to put it bluntly, terrible people. However, to cut out their contributions to literature would be a grave mistake, and in many cases, the sheer length of, criteria for, and implications of these lists demonstrates the ridiculousness of attempting to purify literature in this way.
How can I separate the art from the artist if the views of an author are always inherently entrenched in their work?
I’ve seen the argument quite often that it’s impossible to separate art from its artist because an artist’s views will always be present in their work. After all, any artist is going to spend years working on a piece of art, pouring their heart and soul into the work. So how wouldn’t said work contain their personal views? Wouldn’t an author’s views always be present in their book? Inherently?
Well, not all of the time, and even when they are, I think it still remains possible to separate the art from the artist.
1) A book or piece of artwork does not always relate to the politics or social issues on which an author holds strong views.
To use an extreme example: before his disastrous foray into politics, Hitler wanted to become an artist. You can find images of his art online, and pieces are sometimes still sold. (It’s legal to sell Hitler’s art, as long as it does not contain Nazi symbolism.) It would be difficult to claim Hitler’s views are present in all of his art. If you had no idea who painted them, you would probably not notice anything.
I am borrowing this argument from a booktuber I saw use it to discuss separation of the art from the artist, because it is a perfect example of how art painted by a terrible person can sometimes remain totally innocuous and unrelated to its creator, when viewed by an outside observer.
Might you feel icky to own a painting created by Hitler? I would not buy one myself, but that doesn’t mean the paintings themselves cannot be viewed for what they are outside of their creator: just paintings.
Art can be easily be judged separately from its artist when its contents are completely unrelated to the views of its artist. Of course, this isn’t always the case, especially once you are well aware of who the artist is, and the waters become slightly muddier in the world of literature.
However, there are several more reasons why it is possible to separate the art from the artist with regard to books.
2) Even when books have clear ideological messages, they can still be criticized on the basis of their ideas instead of on the basis of their authors.
It would be ridiculous to claim that an artist’s views never enter the realm of their art or are always equivocal.
It is rare that books intended to make a point about societal issues, are devoid of the author’s opinions. Often, the opposite is true.
However, such books with a clear narrative to push can still be judged based on their contents, rather based on than their authors.
If a view you disagree with is presented by a book, it is very possible to criticize the book and the viewpoint without involving the author. There is a difference between giving a book a low rating because you fundamentally disagree with the ideas expressed directly within it and giving a book a low rating because the author has said something online that you hate. The first is valid criticism; the second is an ad hominem fallacy.
Critique a book for its content, sure– but not for its author’s unrelated statements. Criticize the ideas, not the person.
A book with content you find offensive or flawed is still a book with content you find offensive or flawed, whether or not you feel the same way about its author.
This allows you to point out flaws in a worldview you believe is wrong while still maintaining the separation between the art and the artist. When you’re reviewing a book, you’re reviewing the book and what it stands for, not the person who wrote it and what they stand for outside of that particular book.
Also, it is important to be open to reading books that you disagree with in order to avoid putting yourself in an echo chamber.
3) The merit of ideas, and by extension, books, are not contingent upon their author’s moral flawlessness.
J.K. Rowling is often the person around which these “separating the art from the artist” debates revolve, because she has provoked a huge firestorm about her views on transgenderism. This has caused many more people to claim her views completely infiltrate her writing and then cite Harry Potter itself as transphobic, racist, sexist, homophobic, what-have-you, etc. However, I find many of these criticisms of Harry Potter to be… well… a bit of a stretch.
Whether you still like/agree with Rowling or not, Harry Potter itself contains no references to transgenderism, and I highly doubt these critics would be pointing out so many “offensive” aspects of the series had Rowling never posted her controversial takes on Twitter. Once she made herself Public Enemy No. 1 of the book community, though, everyone’s eyes were opened to how “problematic” the Harry Potter series was. Interesting, is all I can say.
To be fair, criticisms of Harry Potter‘s progressiveness, or lack thereof, existed before 2020, but I noticed an uptick in them after Rowling was canceled on Twitter.
Anyway, I was a huge Harry Potter fan when I was younger, and I’ve read the series many (many many) times. At its core, the series is about love, acceptance, and standing up to prejudice. The villain, Voldemort, is bent on establishing a new world order where pureblood wizards are in power and so-called less desirable people are oppressed. He’s unable to feel love and wants power for its own sake. His prejudice against non-magical people stems from the circumstances of his birth and his own status of a half-blood wizard. The series is full of messages against hate, and whether or not you like Rowling’s online comments, the messages of her books have not suddenly changed.
To cite another example: when I took a US Government class, we read the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and several of the Federalist Papers. I enjoyed reading all of these documents and agreed with many of the principles espoused by them. However, I was also aware that many of the men who wrote them owned slaves and ostensibly did not truly believe in liberty and justice for ALL.
But does this mean that the tenets put forward in the Constitution are somehow less respectable? Does the validity of a statement depend on the writer’s adherence to said statement? Absolutely not.
The point I’m trying to make is that if someone writes something that is true, or that you believe should be true, it doesn’t matter if they themselves abided by it. It’s still a statement that exists on its own and an idea that should be respected. Ideas, and by extension, books, are separate from the simultaneous beliefs and actions of their creators.
4) Once published, literature and its meaning can sometimes become relatively independent from its author and open to the interpretation of readers.
For example, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, an allegory for the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s rise to power, is often cited as a criticism of all forms of socialism/communism. However, this is not necessarily what Orwell intended with the book.
While he was opposed to Stalin and communism in the Soviet Union, he believed in democratic socialism himself, a system in which the government retains a democratic system but the economy functions under socialism. In his essay, “Why I Write,” Orwell directly states: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.” Orwell was not a communist, but he was not opposed to leftist ideas.
I have read that the idea of Animal Farm as totally anti-socialism/communism/leftist economic stuff in general was allegedly used as propaganda in the US during the Cold War. I do think the book can be used as an argument for why attempts at socialism/communism have failed so many times, but the point is, that’s not necessarily the absolutist message Orwell was going for when he wrote it. The book has been interpreted in different ways by different people. It just goes to show that an author’s work can be open to interpretation and to try to treat every single novel as some sort of completely unambiguous authorial manifesto can be misguided.
To continue on this Orwell tangent, 1984 is another example of this. The book has been banned in the US for being pro-communist, but banned in the USSR for being anti-communist.
This isn’t an exact dichotomy: in the US, the book was simply challenged by parents in a Florida school, whereas in the USSR under Stalin it was quite literally banned by the government and burned. However, it remains an example of the possible subjectivity of literature with regard to ideology. This is not always the case, but sometimes things are relatively open to interpretation.
I think it is also worth reiterating that the statements, actions, or beliefs of a character in a book do not necessarily reflect the beliefs of the book’s author.
I sometimes see people labeling authors as problematic because of a problematic statement from a character in a book written by that author. The problem with this is that authors are allowed to write morally gray or morally repugnant characters and often use such characters as representations of something they want to expose. The beliefs of a character in a book do not always coincide with those of the book’s author.
The dilemma of separating the art from the artist: aren’t I tacitly supporting an author’s views if I read or purchase their books?
At first, I was 100% for a complete separation of the art from the artist, no holds barred. But then I began thinking about it more, and I realized that, in fact, it did make me feel a little off to read/purchase books by certain authors whose comments unrelated to their work bothered me, once I knew about said comments.
However, I stand by my conviction that reading a book by an author who’s said something that disgusts you is not the same thing as agreeing or supporting their personal views. You can respect someone for their work while not respecting the views they hold outside of said work.
I also used to be completely against refusing to buy a book because of something an author said. Then I saw the argument that refusing to read/buy a book by a certain author because you object to things they have said or done is simply conducting a boycott, so it’s just how capitalism is supposed to work. I thought about this for a bit and… that’s a good point. There’s also the fact that if the author’s statements or actions are bad enough, it can feel morally wrong to pay for their book.
So I think it’s perfectly fine to make the personal decision not to buy from a certain author, from a certain business, etc. and there should be no double standard about this.
On one hand, I believe that choosing to buy someone’s book can be an endorsement of their literary talent, not their personal unrelated views, but I also understand why someone might not want to give certain people more money by buying their book. I know there are certain people I myself do not want to provide with extra money. And, as a participant in the free market here in the US of A (or wherever you live), it’s your right as a consumer to choose who you monetarily support.
In Conclusion: Separating the Art from the Artist
Overall, though this topic has many gray areas, I believe separating the art from the artist is usually the right way to go, especially if you are not giving money to the author. Ideas exist separately from their creators, and attempting to purge literature of all “problematic” authors is not a path I believe we should attempt to go down.
And while choosing to support or not to support an author monetarily is a decision for you as a consumer, I believe that it is important to remember that endorsement of a book is not endorsement of its author and all of their actions or statements.
Do you believe in separating the art from the artist? Why or why not?
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